Below is a guest post written by Paula Teander (@Sober_Sociology) from Wake Technical Community College.

“Why do you think the number of women having babies outside of marriage has increased?” I asked my Sociology of Family class. Knowing that students often blame pesky teenagers for these increases, I set the trap and waited for the first one to take the bait. The students were surprised that only 7.7% of out-of wedlock births (in 2008) occurred to girls under age 18. Then I brought up that non-marital births were actually higher in Scandinavian countries. “Is that because they’re all cold countries?” asked a particularly adept student. “What an excellent observation,” I said seeing a golden opportunity to point out the difference between correlation and causation.

In my excitement to draw the connection to causation I quickly said, “Did you know that ice cream sales and the incidents of rape are positively correlated.” A stunned silence came over the class; I thought they were mesmerized by my counter-intuitive gem. I went on, “It’s true, as ice cream sales go up more people are raped.” I went up to the whiteboard and drew out the relationship on a xy graph. I spent the next few minutes describing what a spurious correlation was, and how in this particular example it was the heat of summer affecting the increase in both.

It was at this point several students got up and walked out of class.

My face warmed and I could feel the blood surge through my veins as my heart raced. I quickly reviewed in my mind the last few things I had said. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what had just happened. I thought to myself, “why would they just get up and leave?”. I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I was confused, shocked, taken-aback, and anxious. All of these emotions engulfed me as I stood before my students.

Shortly after class I found that it was my discussion of rape and ice cream sales that inspired the students to walkout. . I spent the whole weekend thinking about what I did wrong, and what I could’ve done better. I was heart-broken, as the very last thing I wanted to do was alienate my students. I sent an email to the class explaining how teaching is a two-way street and that our classroom was a learning environment for everyone, careful to include myself.

Communication errors, which often result in hurt feelings, can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes students’ stop listening and hear only pieces of what we are saying. Other times the timing and delivery of what we say is horribly “off.” Performers and comedians make their living off of delivery and timing, not a small thing—especially in the classroom.

Because I’d been using the ice-cream/rape example for years in my classes (sans walkouts), I suspected that timing and delivery played some part in the walkouts. My students were simply not ready for a methodological discussion at that exact moment, and my poorly timed example literally came out of left-field to many of them. But after discussing this matter with a former student of mine, I couldn’t help but take something else from this experience.

My former student admitted to me that she remembered the ice-cream/rape example very well. She also told me that she had heard the same example used in her Psychology class. I asked her if she could remember her initial reaction, and she told me “I first thought it ridiculous that someone would bring this kind of example up in a classroom!” She also confided that she had had a painful experience in her past, one involving sexual abuse. I began to question just how many other students had felt this way throughout the years. Although this particular student was eventually able to wrap her head around the concept, and even now agrees that it is a great way to illustrate correlation and not causation, it made me question the value of using an example that could trigger such a response.

I’m sure most of us use Trigger-warnings in our classes, although we may not actually call them that. If you show a video with graphic scenes, violent content, profanity, or sensitive topics, it’s probably always a good idea to warn the students about this in advance. A trigger warning is basically anything that lets your students know that the up-coming content could “trigger” an emotional/physical response, or maybe that the subject matter might make them feel a bit uncomfortable (not necessarily a bad thing in a learning environment, and certainly a hard thing to escape in a Sociology class). Anyone who reads feminist blogs has come across “trigger warnings” before graphic images or descriptions of rape or violence to women. I recently read that being triggered is like having an allergic reaction, or “an involuntary reaction to a substance which can vary from severe discomfort to serious debilitation and endangerment.”

I learned quite a bit from this classroom experience, and learning isn’t always a bed of roses. I’m still debating whether I’ll ever use the ice-cream/rape example in my classes again, but when/if I do I will make sure that the timing and delivery is right. Knowing that the word (rape) itself can trigger painful memories for some students, memories so vivid that they literally feel their heart-rate increase, they struggle to think or breathe, gives me pause. If I choose to use it, I will most certainly give the class a “heads-up” by saying something like “I’m about to give you an example that involves the word “rape,” but it is in no way meant to scoff at, or downplay the seriousness of rape—rather, it is being used to make us think critically about causation.”

Img: layoutsparks.com

“If two dudes kiss at a party does that mean they’re gay?” Sexuality and gender collide in this question. The social construction of both gender and sexual orientation lay naked. Sexual orientation becomes conditional not on exhibited behaviors, but conditional on the societal response to the exhibited behaviors. In the response to this simple question students can see how sexual orientation, which for many of them has up until now has been something that is determined solely by biology, can be something that is determined socially.

I have designed a “pop quiz” that asks my students to read a short story of two young heterosexual students who after a night of over indulging on alcohol end up kissing one another after a group of their peers repeatedly chanted, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” The story ends the next morning when one of the two young people wakes up to their cell phone ringing off the hook. Someone recorded the kissing and put it on Facebook.

You can download the pop quizzes here.

After reading the story the students are asked to write down what they think the consequences will be for the young people in the story. They are asked if they think the friends, family, and local community will think these two young people are homosexual.

What my students don’t know is, there are two versions of the story. Identical in every way except for the names of the two young people. One version talks about Jasmine kissing Alyssa & the other talks about Darius kissing Cole.

When my students have finished answering the questions I ask them to raise their paper in the air if they wrote down that they believe the community surrounding these two young people would think after seeing the video that they are homosexual. I collect the papers and ask the class to share any thoughts they have. While they talk I separate the pile of quizzes into two piles, one for the male names and one for the female names.

Without fail, far more students think that Darius and Cole will be thought of as gay by their friends and family. Every time I have done this activity the results are almost 2 to 1. Twice as many students think that men kissing at a party will be consider gay than women kissing at a party.

When I tell my students that there were 2 versions of the reading they’re shocked. They laugh and shake their heads. I tell them that twice as many students thought the men were gay than thought the women were lesbian. I tell them that I almost always get this result and I ask them why? This starts a long discussion on the social construction of sexuality and gender construction.

After this activity we begin a discussion focused on deconstructing gender and sexuality. I have my students read Masculinity as Homophobia by Kimmel or Dude, You’re a Fag by C.J. Pascoe to give them the eyes to see how expressions of gender are socially constructed. Both of these outstanding texts make it easy for students to see both how society narrowly defines masculinity and femininity and defines the two in opposition of one another.

I administer this pop quiz during my week long discussion of sexuality and specifically after the class discussion of the Kinsey Continuum of sexual orientation. The Kinsey Continuum is based on the national research Alfred Kinsey did on the sexual thoughts and actions people had in 1948. Kinsey found that the men who admitted to engaging in sex acts with other men, or fantasizing about doing so, or admitted being aroused by gay pornography almost always reported that they were heterosexual and not gay. The Kinsey Continuum is great, because it shows the disconnect between self-identified sexual orientation (a social construct) and the desires, behaviors, and fantasies of an individual (an empirical construct).

With a solid understanding of the social construction of gender and sexuality students are ready to see how sexual orientation is socially constructed and how narrowly defined masculinity is more intolerant to non-conforming gender expressions than is femininity. As a society we are more accepting of gender non-conformity in women.* Especially when the non-conformity is expressed in a way that delights heterosexual men. Two young women kissing at a party while surrounded by young men chanting, “Kiss, kiss, kiss,” is seen as non-threatening to our narrowly defined masculinity; scenes like this can be viewed as reinforcing narrowly defined heterosexual masculinity. My point here is not to judge expressions of sexuality and gender, but rather to demonstrate the flexibility of female sexuality and the rigidity of male sexuality.

*I feel compelled to acknowledge the violence and hostility that lesbians and other women who express their gender in non-conforming ways experience everyday. I feel it’s safe to say that narrowly defined masculinity is overall more hostile to non-conforming expressions of masculinity, but it’s not a competition. The larger problem here is the constraining of self-expression regardless of which sex is expressing it.

RESOURCES:
Kimmel, Michael S. 2000. “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.” Pp. 213-219. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism, edited by Maurianne adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Rosie Castaneda, Heater W. Hackman, Madeline L, Peters, Ximena Zuniga. New York, NY: Routldege.

Pascoe, C.J. 2007. “Dude, You’re a Fa: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.” University of California Press.

“I wish there was something I could do,” I found myself saying after I heard of another suicide of a bullied gay teen. And then it hit me like a whack on the side of the head. I have a flipping class of 200 students. Why not put that to some social use? It’s true that this project was not on my syllabus at the start of the semester and it will require that I take some time out to develop the project, but THIS is sociology. It’s not some abstract concept in a book, its public sociology; sociology that could make a difference.

I have been troubled in recent weeks by the number of campaigns to end ______ that don’t actually mitigate the social issue in any real way. I have wanted to write on my Facebook status that, “I like it on something that can actually make a difference in breast cancer.” (Read this if that makes no sense to you 🙂 I feel that if we construct an activity like this well, we could demonstrate to our students how to take social action in ways that actually create a impact in their community.

I try to avoid being an activist teacher in my classroom because I find it alienates more studesnts than other approaches, so this project would have to be something students could elect to do if they wanted. For this to work it couldn’t be heavy handed or feel forced. This project would be an option for motivated students who wanted to do something unique.

The activity that I came up with (Download it here) is what I call a “Pitch Me” project. I set out some clearly defined outcomes, for instance that it needs to be public and it must incorporate sociology, but after these guidelines are met they are free to run wild. Students email me a pitch that includes all the relevant details and then we collaborate to develop the idea in to a satisfactory project. What I love about this project is that it asks students to solve a interesting problem and lead which is the goal I talked about last week.

Please feel free to download, modify, or share these directions in anyway that you feel could make a positive difference. If you use this idea or develop one like it, let me know and we can share our students work on this site after the semester is over. Together I believe we can really make a difference in our communities and across the planet. Thank you in advance for considering it.